The Last Castrato

A week or so back, I happened across the words of an atheist who said, “Religion is not about morality; it’s about having an excuse to do immoral things.” That concept is fresh in my mind today, so I’ll speak about some of the immoral things, and perhaps how they are excused by religion, but abhorrent to those who are not members.

When I refer to “the Church,” I usually mean Catholicism, since that’s my own background, and in this area of the world which is populated primarily by Mormons, they mean, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.” They, too, have their excuses.

I’m not going to attempt an entire history of any sort, blogs being a brief essay and not a book, but rather, to simply point out in particular things that illustrate the point.

I’ll start with the Cathars. They were a threat to the Church, not because they were in some way evil or malefactors, but because they were competitors. In debates, they had a tendency to come out on top. They embodied some of the earlier Manichean traits, which combined a number of earlier religions’ views as to the nature of the divine and the world. Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, various Persian concepts were found among these people, who had no churches, and who led ascetic lives without the gold and jewels and property of the Church. Many left Catholicism to join with them. Today, we might view them as truly religious, and perhaps we might see their religion as a beautiful artifact of the past.

But the Church brooked no competition. Pope Innocent III built a Crusade against the Cathars and the high altitudes of the Languedoc region of France ran with blood. These men were criminals because they dared to mock the church. They were burned like logs in a fire.

The command, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” rings true through the centuries as an excuse to slaughter anyone not us. One might split hairs and wonder if the evolutionary development of the human race requires some survival of the fittest to make us strong. But of course, the answer is no, there are a multitude of ways to die without killing, and the same god who insisted on killing others also commanded to not kill, a rather strange conflict of demands.

An excuse. To kill.

While we still mutilate male babies’ genitals, we recoil in horror at the mutilation of female genitals in Muslim societies. And the purpose of that mutilation remains the same – the curtailment of pleasure for the victim. In a world so full of pain, we sordid humans look for ways to make life less pleasurable, with a confusing explanation of how all the misery of life is simply a test for us, to prove our mettle or our worthiness to move on to a better plane of existence. After all, there must be some excuse for the cruelty.

The Cathars believed in a duality. They thought that this world was not created by a god, but rather, an evil being, and that we were placed here to test our spirits. Their asceticism led them to menial jobs, a plain life. But, in a burst that some might consider immoral while others might applaud them for their morality, they thought that sex for non-procreative purposes was just fine.

The slaughter of the Cathars was no small thing. Hundreds of thousands were destroyed at the hands of the Church’s warriors, and lands and treasure were given to the murderers as a reward.

Today, we see the pro-life stance of the Church as though it were a basic part, but of course such slaughter was not uncommon for any heresy. We see the mutilation of female genitals as horrible, but how can this be reconciled with male genitals being disfigured to discourage masturbation? The same mindset is at work in two not-so-different ways.

And the life culture of Catholicism, and indeed, all of American Christianity, the fight against abortion, seems so out of place in a group, or groups, so set on domination by death. It hasn’t always been so – it’s a relatively new phenomenon. And it’s seeming well-meaning is clouded by the spread of AIDS in countries where the Church’s condom ban feeds the flames of the disease; not so different, really, than burning bodies in a pile.

Another excuse to do bad things. So, where is the morality in Christendom?

Castration was not unique to Christianity. Its roots go back to ancient Sumer at least. Castration deters the production of the hormone testosterone and causes the larynx to remain childlike, producing the soprano or contralto tones so prized in the choirs. It also produced long limbs and ribs. The Byzantine Empire from around 400 was regaled with the dulcet tones of castrati, and over the centuries they seem to have come and gone in their importance, until around the sixteenth century CE. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the castrati began to disappear as they fell out of fashion. Pope Benedict XIV tried to ban the castrati, but he feared that this action in light of their popularity might have led to people leaving the Church.

What greater contraceptive is there than castration? Still, it’s a bit cruel, isn’t it? The castrati were said to have hated their parents for what had been done to them.

The last living true castrato was Alessandro Moreschi, and in 1908 recordings of his voice were made by associates of Thomas Edison at the request of Pope Leo XIII. You can still hear the 100+ year-old recordings today. My own thoughts on the matter are that the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze. The high-pitched child’s voice seems out of place and I have difficulty imagining why it would have been thought superior to the voice of a tenor.

The mixed messages of procreation and life and mutilation don’t seem to go together somehow. You don’t hear the anti-abortion crowd singing the praises of the de-testicled victims of misguided Church surgeons. The last true castrato died on April 21, 1922, at the age of 63. He was past the age of forty when the recordings were made, and that was considered past his prime, and his voice is regarded as mediocre. It seems an unfitting tribute to a man whose life was so curtailed by the unsavory amputation. No children were left behind to carry on his tradition . . .

“The slip that brought me
To my knees failed
What if all these fantasies
Come flailing around . . .”

– Losing My Religion, R.E.M.


About herkblog

I'm an atheist. Although that's just a part of my life, I consider it to be important enough to me to be the main theme of this personal screed. I am self-employed in a service business and I live in Idaho, a place not known for its liberal qualities.
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